Let Them Wear Dirt: Penmai Chongtoua Turns Earth Into Textiles
Penmai Chongtoua takes scraps of fabric from a jar and places them on a table. The bands have a leathery feel and a slight grain of sand. They’re surprisingly thin and strong, considering they’re over 60% earth. These are swatches made from the new “BioEarth fabric,” which she co-designed — through a painstaking process — to be worn as clothing.
“It’s so interesting to see how this material behaves over time,” says Chongtoua, examining the cracked edges of the scraps, which dry slowly and become less flexible over time. “It evolves and has its own life cycle.”
After graduating from MA in Climate and Society program at Columbia Climate School in 2022, Chongtoua came to work as an associate researcher in the Natural Materials Laboratory at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Conservation and Planning. Led by the teacher Lola Ben Alon, the lab is exploring the use of low-carbon, non-toxic building materials. The space is filled with buckets of dirt and clay, chunks of granite, and fibers such as hay, hemp, and hairy flax. Bricks, curtains, pottery, furniture and other intriguing products created from these materials decorate the laboratory.
Unique among his lab mates, Chongtoua is trying to transform these earthen materials into wearable products. Her hope is that by bringing us intimately closer to an element that most of us rarely consider in our daily lives, her textiles will encourage people to examine their relationship with the Earth, and perhaps re-imagine ways more symbiotic to coexist with it.
Chongtoua was not the kind of child to play in the mud. She grew up in Colorado, surrounded by natural beauty that she felt disconnected from. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants transplanted into a predominantly white community, interacting with green spaces seemed tied to a culture of which she was not necessarily a member.
Although she knew she loved the environment, she felt it was missing something: the human element. Chongtoua believes that human beings should not be seen as separate from “pure” nature. So, as an undergraduate at Brown University, she studied environmental politics to explore the relationships between people, communities, and our natural, built, and social environments.
It was within the framework of the Climate and Society program that she discovered the Natural Materials Lab. Ben-Alon, the lab director, was looking for a graduate research assistant to perform a project life cycle analysis. Chongtoua was captivated, and although it turned out she didn’t have the software expertise for this particular role, Ben-Alon was impressed with her passion and desire to work in the lab, so they brainstormed. other ways to collaborate.
During their conversation, Chongtoua spoke about her design background in textiles and fashion, cultivated during her undergraduate studies. Fabrics and clothes had always appealed to her not only because of their function of basic human necessity, but also because fabrics and clothes convey culture, technology, politics, and social information.
“I’ve always been drawn to the relationship between textiles and the body, and also how that relationship impacts our relationship to the social world, the natural world, and the constructed world,” she says. “Everything is interconnected for me.”
While brainstorming with Ben-Alon, the two began to wonder how these relationships would be different if the textiles were made of earthen materials. Thus, their collaboration was born.
“I had no idea that I would soon become a materials scientist,” says Chongtoua. “I had no idea that I was going to carry out in-depth microscopic studies of the material and come across research centers like the Liang Tong Laboratory and the Climate Imaginations Networkand just connecting with so many interesting humans who ask the same philosophical questions as me.
Chongtoua’s first goal was to explore what it would mean to wear earth.
His first clay garment was cast on a model’s body like plaster – heavy, solid and inflexible. The model could only wear it while sitting or lying down. As a result, she felt very meditative while wearing it. It allowed him to slow down and think.
One of the key findings from this first phase of research, Chongtoua explains, is that when you wear earth, “you are able to think more critically, more intentionally, and more aware of the interactions you have with the environment. “.
The next step was to make the material more dynamic, just like the human beings who wear them. Chongtoua and Ben-Alon considered various ways to increase its flexibility. Should they change the process in which it is built? Should they interweave the soil with natural fibers?
Ultimately, they decided to test bioplastics – plastics derived from natural materials such as cornstarch, cellulose or alginate found in brown algae.
With flasks of chemistry, a hot plate and a cooking pot, Chongtoua conducted a series of rigorous experiments trying dozens of “recipes” combining soil, fibers and various bioplastics in different quantities.
“Finally, we found a recipe composition that is over 60% earth – so the majority of the material is still earth-based,” says Chongtoua, “but it’s a flexible, wearable, mobile piece of fabric. “
This new “BioEarth fabric” was strong enough to be laser cut, embroidered and machine sewn. Chongtoua incorporated pieces of it into a kimono that is much lighter and more flexible than his first-generation garments.
Then she hopes to keep improving the fabric until it matches the strength and flexibility of traditional textiles like cotton. To that end, she recently started working with a bioplastics expert on campus to try new iterations and recipes.
She and Ben-Alon are currently developing a course that would teach future designers and architects the art and chemistry of bioplastics and earth-based materials. Additionally, they work with Columbia Ventures file a patent on the invention of the fabric. They also aim to broaden public engagement around the new fabric, to consider other applications for it.
Will the sustainable and biodegradable fashion of the future be made of BioEarth textiles?
Not so fast, Chongtoua said. She and Ben-Alon proceed with caution when considering their textile for the mass market.
Currently, the Natural Materials Laboratory uses waste from construction sites. But if BioEarth fabric were produced on a large scale, it’s hard to imagine that this process would rely in the same way on waste soil.
More than a century ago, petrochemical plastic was introduced as a sustainable alternative to logging forests for the commercial production of natural gums and resins. Today it has become its own environmental crisis. Humanity has repeatedly seen that mass production can lead to massive environmental impacts.
“When we think about the scalability of the BioEarth fabric, will scaling up its production processes also produce an environmental disaster in the future?” asks Chongtoua. The starches and vinegar she uses to make the bioplastics also have to be produced somewhere, she notes, and those processes also have an impact.
The solution may lie in a decentralized approach of sharing research with other groups who can apply it locally in their own supply chain and extraction contexts, she says.
One of the things that made this work possible, Chongtoua says, are the interconnections she formed at the Columbia Climate School.
The people, the culture, the clothes and the environment – all of these are intertwined for Chongtoua, and not only in a figurative sense. She says being part of the Climate and Society program was a turning point in her career, as it brought her into contact with a world-renowned community of professors and peers with radical perspectives.
“Columbia really gave me the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with like-minded people who had the same kind of philosophical goals for their vision of what a sustainable world is.”